Dominatrix of Docs: Shelia Nevins at Tribeca

HBO's Sheila Nevins

Known as the Dominatrix of Docs, Mrs. Sheila Nevins is candid, funny and a great storyteller. Oh, and she has a bit of a potty mouth. So be warned: if you submit your documentary to her, she’s going to tell you how it is.

And how is the documentary film climate fairing these days?

Per her discussion at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, the industry is concerned about funding.  The climate for documentaries is not awful nor is it great either. Nevins enjoys what she does – and could technically start her own documentary channel.  Without HBO she would join us all in the crucial category of funding to reach an audience.   At HBO, documentaries have their place and require the rest of the network to maintain their line up.  You could say they are not yet top priority; her department is number six. In fact, it’s probably safe to assume that the revenue generating departments (e.g. sports) will continue to fund the HBO docs department.

That said, HBO is one of the few places that markets docs very well. As Nevins states, they are very good at “selling one thing at a time.” HBO has become the go-to place for documentary filmmakers. Fortunately, HBO allows for cold submissions (that is, no agent / manager necessary). But your doc better have the following elements:

  • If they have aired the story before, it better be told in a different way.

  • The story should showcase vulnerability.

  • Topics should be hot (look at narrative films to see what is topical / in the zeitgeist).

After all, Nevin’s mandate when she first accepted the HBO job was to go after docs.  At that time the original lineup was about divorce due to the larger success of the feature film “War of the Roses”.   Her mandate has not changed and neither has her belief that “people are more interesting than they think they are.”